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Contemporary art

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art

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Swimming before school



Ian Abdulla


1947 - 29 Jan 2011

Language group

Ngarrindjeri, Southern Riverine region


lan Abdulla's paintings vividly recall his childhood memories of the peripatetic life of the Ngarrindjeri people of the Riverland region in rural South Australia. A hallmark of his work is the juxtaposition of text and image against a flattened foreground, in the manner of an animated narrative. Abdulla's handpainted annotations are placed dead centre at the top of his paintings, bringing a personal inflection to his stories. His experiences are shared by many Aboriginal people dispossessed of their land and marginalised into a life of seasonal work and scavenging. Yet, as 'Swimming before school', 1995, reveals, Abdulla's richly detailed paintings offer a sense of community despite the hardships of working for a subsistence livelihood on the fringes of a wealthy white farming community. The rapid degradation of the natural resources of the region, and encroaching westernisation of Nunga communities are also as subtly constant as the ubiquitous Murray River.

From his participation in a community screen-printing workshop in Glossop in 1988, Abdulla's transition to painting and increasing prominence is similar to that of many Aboriginal artists from rural or urban communities who have found a voice in the visual arts. Abdulla's work came to national attention during his first solo exhibition in 1991 at the newly established Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide. By actively supporting the artists of its Indigenous constituency, Tandanya was critical in the fostering of the impressive talents of Nunga artists. In 1993, Abdulla exhibited jointly with Wiradjuri artist, H.J. Wedge, at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative, Sydney. An artist-run centre, Boomalli was set up in 1987 by a group of ten Sydney-based Aboriginal artists.

Abdulla has also produced three autobiographical picture books, and undertaken commissions for 'Beyond the Pale: Adelaide Biennial of Australian art', curated by Brenda L. Croft in 2000, and the Melbourne Museum. For these projects, he created three-dimensional installations that appear as natural evolutions of his paintings. In 1991 Abdulla was named South Australian Aboriginal Artist of the Year, and was awarded an Australia Council Fellowship in 1992. As these awards and his work testify, lan Abdulla is now counted as one of the leading figures in the flourishing of Indigenous art from Australia's rural communities.

Hetti Perkins in 'Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia', Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2004

© Art Gallery of New South Wales


Place where the work was made

Southern Riverine South Australia Australia



Media category


Materials used

synthetic polymer paint on canvas


239.5 x 160.0 cm stretcher

Signature & date

Signed and dated l.r. corner, white synthetic polymer paint "Ian.W.Abdulla. 19-95".


Mollie Gowing Acquisition Fund for Contemporary Aboriginal Art 1996


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Ian Abdulla

Artist profile

Works in the collection


Shown in 3 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 6 publications


Edmund Capon, Steven Miller, Tony Tuckson, James Scougall, Mollie Gowing, Harry Messel, Craig Brush, Ronald Fine, Alison Fine, Gordon Davies, Rosalind Davies, Christopher Hodges, Helen Eager, Rosemary Gow, Sandra Phillips, Daphne Wallace and Ken Watson, Gamarada, Sydney, 1996, 52 (colour illus.).

Bruce James, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Australian Collection: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art', pg. 208-241, Sydney, 1999, 239 (colour illus.).

Karen Mills, One sun one moon: Aboriginal art in Australia, ‘The politics of painting: Community, culture, country’, pg. 295-303, Sydney, 2007, 300 (colour illus.).

Hetti Perkins, Look, 'One sun one moon', pg. 22-27, Sydney, Jun 2007, 22 (colour illus.), 23.

Hetti Perkins, Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia, 'Ian Abdulla', pg. 22, Sydney, 2004, 22 (colour illus.), 23 (colour illus., detail).

Jane Wynter, Look, 'Mollie and Jim Gowing's lasting legacy', pg. 12, Sydney, Nov 2010, 12 (colour illus.).